How is “distance” created? Or, what conditions must be met in the present moment of the global pandemic to begin creating the paradigm “about” it? Are we not witnessing the transformation of thinking about distance and its normalization, that is, its normativization? What distance are we even talking about? The theme of “distance” emerged immediately after the outbreak and slowdown of the first wave of the Covid-19 virus pandemic, and followed with equal attention sanitary and epidemiological processes, but also political and institutional decisions about coercion and restriction. Currently, we refer to the physical and geographical distance with the arbitrariness of the prescribed 1.5 or 2 meters apart, with controversies and already the first studies on the effectiveness of the sufficient distance. We think of it as a gap or space “in between.” It is represented spatially in the form of nuclei that touch and intersect, designed to fit the geometric shapes, rooms, and physical objects of houses and hospital wards, as well as quarantined neighbourhoods, cities, regions, countries, islands, and finally continents. Dotted arrows or concentric circles mark the prescribed distance on one side, while artificial intelligence algorithms use precisely inputted values of physical body distance to compute viable models for predicting short or long-term scientific and social responses to prevent the spread of infection and reduce its negative consequences. In this way, of course, they construct a new reality and project it into several different scenarios, marking the transition to yet unknown forms of transformed relations of social distance. This lexicon entry aims to point to the necessary dialogue between the science of “life,” epidemiology, its related disciplines, and the social sciences and humanities, in order to find a new “dictionary” of distance that does not violate the rights derived from democratic values. Most importantly, the following thematization of “distance” derives from monitoring the sanitary processes and political and institutional decisions during the pandemic in the first half of 2020, as well as coercion and restriction caused by the spread of the pandemic. Distance is first thought of as a physical space, as a gap between, in determining deviations, displacements, and placements of empty spaces in each of the worlds that may or may not have points of contact. It is thought of as concentric circles that do not touch or intersect. The concentric circles mark the prescribed distance, while artificial intelligence algorithms with precise input values calculate application models. Therefore, it is now necessary to “measure” the distance using coordinate systems and equations in which general biological processes, such as life, contagion, infection, transmission, and also immunity or autoimmunity, are among the main elements. These elements, of course, belong to the same lexicon of use and could be visually represented as a thesaurus of multidimensional value sets. However, since people cognise the world and themselves in it, the second step is to speak of distance as an epistemological process that:
- a) connects different elements of reality or the same elements of different realities with each other
- b) in which these elements inevitably become interactive through their conspicuous intermingling
- c) to discover the reason for their naming
- d) to evoke a chain of events (not necessarily causal) that makes “distance” necessary in any form of future thematization of newly arisen social relations, first as a phenomenon and now as a concept to be rethought.
The first step in determining the “vocabulary” of distance is not testing and processing the word itself but finding exactly those very elements that make the idea of distance the word “distance” and also the concept through which “distancing” becomes an operating vector.
Let us mention that we embarked on this adventure following Michel Foucault and his phrase vocabulaire de la distance, used in his 1963 manifesto to comment on the status of “fiction” in relation to reality. The author’s intention was to erase from language use all the words and contradictions that maintain and so easily “dialectise” fiction. Foucault was concerned with the “confrontation and abolition of the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external, reality and the imaginary” and with replacing the “lexicon of mixture” (lexique du mélange)1Tel Quel: Théorie d’Ensemble. Manifest Tel Quel Collectif with texts by Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Joseph Goux, Jean-Louis Houdebine, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, and Jean Thibaudeau, Paris 1968. with the “vocabulary of distance” (le vocabulaire de la distance), in order to demonstrate and then prove that the distance of language in relation to things is in itself fictitious.
Various methods in the history of ethnography, sociology, anthropology, or social psychology that have been employed to describe, map, measure, and analyse distance as remoteness and to construct models of social distancing, distanciation sociale, and social distance, have often varied in their degree of pragmatism, especially given the advent of new techniques and technologies. They were rarely unambiguous and always entailed the inclusion of economic, political, and ideological premises of related disciplines. Increasingly complex operational concepts were introduced to describe newly observed factors and to build up, first diagrammatic and later parametric, structures of social relations. The human world gradually lost its one-dimensionality and became the world of all beings and things. The simpler coordinate system was lost and became inclusive, just as the development of the microscope and telescope reshaped the scale of perception, making human relationships even more complex: the tiny world of bacteria and cells becomes closer, but also much farther in its otherness. From the earliest explorations of Robert Hooke2Hooke, Robert. Micrographia: Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. Royal Society, 1665. Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1549. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020. and Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek3Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van. Alle de brieven. Deel 3: 1679 – 1683. 1948. De Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren, www.dbnl.org/tekst/leeu027alle03_01/leeu027alle03_01_0002.php#b00432005. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020. to today, when we are faced with the mystery of the Covid-19 virus, people have formed new perspectives – and in specific ways have always put themselves at a distance from others who ought to be included or perhaps excluded.
Let us remember that, according to Georg Simmel, the operability of distance manifested itself through the problematization of the stranger in the text “The Stranger,” where Simmel introduces the notion of spatial sociology and thus categorizes distance or remoteness in the social world by distinguishing the “vagabond” and the “outsider” from the “stranger” – who should not be classified as a complete renegade. The “stranger” is near and far and only loosely connected to the community, while the renegade is far away.4Simmel, Georg. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. The Free Press, 1950, p. 263. Simmel connects the idea of the stranger and the concept of social distance with the category of humankind, specifically the category of humankind in the three-dimensional Euclidean coordinate system, which is important for understanding the transformation of social distance analysed in this text. Social distance is defined as a social collision between different social groups when there is an effort to create a clear categorization that distinguishes race, ethnicity, gender, and other differences, which in the 20th century has become a social phenomenon. In the same way, the stranger becomes a multifaceted figure, subjected to different types of stereotypes and prejudices. In the univalence of such a coordinate system and due to the fact that he does not belong to any group, the stranger, who does not belong anywhere, has always been a factor in the consolidation (of the group). During the 19th and 20th centuries, social distancing solidified as a process in which acceptance and detachment, assimilation and rejection, modelled the very well-known binary oppositions of urban/rural, young/old, white/black/yellow, individual/community. The consequences were long-lasting and complex because they also manifested in different value systems when it comes to describing social distancing in different disciplines. Let us not forget that in the history of emancipatory movements, the fight against segregation began primarily as the abolition of various practices of de jure segregation, only to evolve into an equally difficult process of eradicating de facto segregation or the use of social distancing.
In operationalizing the struggle against the binary, Adolf Reinach ought to be mentioned. At the beginning of the 20th century, he identified the existence of certain negative social acts (negative soziale Akte)5Reinach, Adolf. “Nichtsoziale und soziale Akte.” Sämtliche Werke, edited by Karl Schumann and Barry Smith, Philosophia, 1989, pp. 355 – 360. through the phenomenology of opposition. Reinach draws attention to the imaginary difference between negative social acts and simple negative acts that fit into the account of the construction of social distance, which is thus different from physical distance. The effort with which Reinach thinks of the construction of social distance and negative social acts is now inversely proportional, because it implies the reverse process of reflection.6Reinach, Adolf. “Die sozialen Akte.” Sämtliche Werke, edited by Karl Schumann and Barry Smith, Philosophia, 1989, pp. 158 – 169.
What, then, is left of social relations, and how are they formed in a situation in which distance elementally separates two bodies which in any case have no contact? How to determine the distance that nevertheless implies or entails a partial or perhaps imaginary belonging to a social group? What do two or more bodies that cannot touch or approach and potentially move towards each other do in the first place?
Although social distance indicates the clear presence and existence of the other, this time, unlike Simmel, the other is similar to us and at a comparable and sufficient distance from us. This conception of the other seems to have some unusual characteristics: the other is someone who can determine us and on whom we are dependent; the other, in his difference, cannot in any way be assimilated to us or reduced to us; the language of the other is not my language; it is very rare to cooperate with the other at a distance or to perform a joint action; one cannot walk or eat with the other or shake hands with him, any more than the other can be a guest in our house or a host in his house. All these basic forms of closeness and intimacy, implemented and regulated by social distance, can be defined and reconstructed even more precisely in order to find, in reverse, the meaning of “social” in the term “social distance.” The other at a distance is the other from whom we necessarily differ (because it is, in fact, the difference or distinction that simultaneously produces distance), and the “other” is not substantially the same as “I,” that is, as “we.”
We move a step further with Pathos der Distanze, as formulated by Nietzsche, which in this sense is no different from Levinas’s insistence on the existence of the otherness of the other or the absolute other (the other is so different that he is actually a god or an enemy and therefore is not near us or close to us, which brings us back to Simmel). Nietzsche’s formulation was interesting at one point because it described the effort, specific to certain eras, to aggressively establish “distance” or “distinction from the other” from another body. Therefore, one of the basic characteristics of social distance is its autoreferential dimension or imperative. It is very relevant today, as we often hear the performative: “Keep your distance!” or “Fais de la distance!”7Lütticken, Sven. “‘Keep Your Distance’ Aby Warburg on Myth and Modern Art.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 28, no. 1, 2005, pp. 45 – 59.
Another important thing in determining distance is crucial here. Aby Warburg, a point of reference for many 20th-century semioticians, introduces a critical attitude to taste that should include a basic exercise in the formation of distance. He does this by lamenting monumental art and contrasting the “bourgeois ‘primitive’ desire to embrace reality and demand ‘tangible’ details with concrete art that is much more civilized.” Warburg nostalgically writes: “There is no more distance [Es giebt keine Entfernung mehr!]” He supplements this statement with his recipe: “Live and do not hurt me! [Du lebst und thust mir nichts!]”8Warburg, Aby. Fragments sur l’expression. ECARQUILLE, 2015. Even in the misunderstood Warburg, distancing is instruction and a desirable form of action and opinion.
What does this performative tell us anyway, and does it now carry a new meaning that will inevitably transform our vocabulary of distance? What about slogans like “don’t come near me,” “don’t touch me,” or “I have nothing to do with you” (although I know you exist, that you are near), but also, “I don’t want you to hurt or contaminate me,” “I don’t want you to give me your mortality” (I don’t want to be mortal like you), “I don’t want you to give me what I need to get rid of myself or what you haven’t gotten rid of” (what is alien to you – virus or corruption or mortality). What do these slogans say? This kind of resistance to the other is what creates the distance and certainly creates the illusion that there is a possibility of a simple, detached life (or one’s own naked life) or a shared life or in a group.
Is it really a simple life (blosse Leben), that is, a life that seems to precede everything (and therefore the law, that is, the norm)? What exactly is blosse Leben? It should be borne in mind that the term blosse Leben was used four times by Walter Benjamin in Zur Kritik der Gewalt,9Benjamin, Walter. Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Surhamph, 1965. while Giorgio Agamben unduly converts it into nuda vita, nachtes Leben in Homo sacer.10Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita. Einaudi, 1995, p. 75. Similarly, in Nudità he uses nuda corporeità.11Agamben, Giorgio. Nudità. Figure, 2009, p. 89. For the sake of accuracy, and because of the later implications and uses of this brief distancing in the political lexicon, we need to update that Benjamin uses this expression to contradict Kurt Hiller and his view on existence as being far more important than happiness or simple life. (Falsch und niedrig ist de Satz, dass Dasein höher als gerechtes Dasein stehe, wenn Dasein nichts als blosses Leben bedeutet soll – und in dieser Bedeutung steht er in der genannten Überlegung).12Benjamin, Walter. Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Surhamph, 1965, p. 62.
When thinking about the semiotic limits of life, one must start primarily from the first decades of the 20th century. What is life, anyway? More precisely, what is the life of something living (la vie d’un vivant)?13Canguilhem, Georges. “Vie.” Encyclopædia Universalis S.A., vol. 16, 1977, pp. 764 – 769. At the beginning of his 1966 lecture “New Knowledge of Life” (La nouvelle connaissance de la vie), Canguilhem clarifies: “By life we mean the present participle or the past participle of the verb to live, living and alive.”14Canguilhem, Georges. Études d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. Vrin, 2016, p. 335. Positivistically and functionally, the early 19th-century definition is convincing enough: “Life is a set of functions that resist death.”15Bichat, Xavier. Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort. Victor Masson, 1800, p. 57. The variant of this position was also highlighted by Claude Bernard in his text “Définition de la vie,” published in 1875 in La Revue des deux mondes. “Surgeon Pelletan teaches at a medical school in Paris that life is a resistance by which the organised matter opposes the causes that seek to destroy it.”16Bernard, Claude. Définition de la vie. Revue des Deux Mondes, 2016, p. 23. This definition includes negation: negation is the end of life but also implies the concept of organisation or plurality of functions that life possesses to resist and defy its end. It follows that life is a complex and complicated system that disrupts the fiction of “simple or bare life” (blosse Lebens). The phrase “bare human life” (bloss menschliche Leben)17Misch, Georg. Lebensphilosophie und Phänomenologie. Darmstadt, 1975, p. 24. was used as early as 1930 by Georg Misch. The idea that life is easy to define without the help of other terms, that it is enough just to experience life, is really a joke. In his book Die Philosophie des Lebens, Heinrich Rickert gives intuitive vitality to this fantasy with the statement: Das blosse Leben halte ich für sinnlos, for it simply has no value and is nothing but mere survival. Bruno Bauch also repeats the same argument seven years later in his book Philosophie des Lebens und Philosophie der Werte. In the preface to the second edition of his book, Rickert adds: “I consider mere life meaningless. Only the philosophy of a meaningful life, which is always higher than a simple life, I consider a valuable goal to be pursued, because, due to its basis on the theory of inanimate but valid values that provide meaning to life, it can promise that this goal will be met.”18Rickert, Heinrich. Philosophie des Lebens. Tübingen, 1922, p. 129. By declaring in more than a hundred pages that der Philosophie des blossen Lebens has no future, Rickert, in a sense, counterintuitively and contrary to constructive aspirations, creates a path in thinking about a new dimension that counts or does not count on bare or simple life in the construction of the new notion of social distance, discussed in the first half of the twentieth year of the twenty-first century.
On the one hand, there are polyvalent meanings of social distancing based on the functional differentiation of different social systems, while, on the other hand, we encounter a very important biological dimension of life in general and of human life in particular. In this confusion and lexicon of mixture (to recall Foucault again), it is necessary to upgrade the classical and standardized understanding of social distancing. Neither Marx, Polany or Norbert Elias, Helmuth Plessner, nor even Bourdie can help us anymore because, as already mentioned, the coordinate systems and factors analysed to measure and predict distancing factors cannot represent the complexity of the contemporary model of distance. In an effort to capture this biological dimension of human life (although it should be mentioned that biopolitical variations are also unsatisfactory), it is necessary to point out once again the inadequacy of our natural language, but also the lack of a conceptual corpus that would enable the analysis of a new aspect of social distance.
Why do the professional languages of biology, epidemiology, infectiology, and related disciplines now dominate descriptions, legislative recommendations, and temporary measures of protection? Have these professional disciplines mastered the terminological differences (differentia specifica), where contagion, contamination, infection, transmission, hygiene, but also immunity or autoimmunity, to name just a few keywords, no longer cause ambiguity and confusion in layman and mass usage? Indeed, it would be good to vectorize this usage now because in tracing iterations of different values, it is possible to identify factors that can be represented in a multidimensional coordinate system in which the concept of distance will be pragmatic but will also have an unambiguous performative value. Perhaps not even performativity is enough, but that in this performativity no negative emotions of fear and panic or hostility appear, but that through it an unreserved measure of care appears. It is also important not to forget the cultural resistance faced by all those who, as physicians, proposed changes in habits and conventions, because not so long ago, in the middle of the 19th century, Ignaz Semmelweiss, to whom we owe the basic act of washing hands thoroughly, died in isolation in an asylum at the age of 47, completely misunderstood.
We repeat the questions from the beginning of the text:
How is “distance” created? Are we witnessing the change in the understanding of distance? Does the paradigm shift “about” social distance precede its normalization and then its normativization?
To frame a problem that will help answer these questions, let us recall a recent marketing campaign in California to launch the sales of a particular model of a self-driving car. The market was already prepared, almost all production requirements were met, but the pandemic occurred. The CEO of Steer Tech start-up, Anuja Sonalker, supports her PR campaign by stating that people are the ones who pose a biohazard while machines are safe. Without plunging into benchmarking analysis of intentions and motives or into a language that supports economic tricks and market patterns of any start-up, this near-perfect chiasm figure is a signal for us to pause and be vigilant.19Lekach, Sasha. “It Took a Coronavirus Outbreak for Self-Driving Cars to Become More Appealing.” Mashable, 2 April 2020, mashable.com/article/autonomous-vehicle-perception-coronavirus/?europe=true. Accessed 24 Sept. 2020.
Therefore, people are dangerous to the lives of others precisely because they have the characteristics of living beings. Like other particularly mobile beings, mosquitoes, rats, or some lesser-known rodents, people are biohazards because they represent vectors of danger to others or themselves. In contrast to all previous preventive and hygienic discourses on epidemic, contagion, infection, and similar phenomena, the development of artificial intelligence technologies and other automation processes now allows the formation of ethically, emotionally, and ontologically neutral models, which in the near future will make it possible to think of humans exclusively in terms of biological vectors.
The point is not only that Warburg’s noble formulation (“Live and don’t hurt me!”) might not only aestheticize but also humanize the formulation expressed by Anuja Sonalker, but that by reconstructing the “dictionary of distance” we might more precisely define the values that vector the degree of protection that can simultaneously protect humans by preserving their humanity but also their egoistic need for self-preservation. Two values are sought in the dictionary of epidemiology, and both are equally important. The first one is the R number, or R0, which is the basic reproductive number used to measure the potential transmission of disease. R0 is the number of people to whom an infected individual will transmit the virus on average. The R0 number is influenced by the characteristics of specific infections, that is, by the rate and ease with which they are transmitted from person to person. The R0 value is strongly influenced by our behaviour. It is very important to keep the value of R0 below 1 as this indicates that the number of cases recorded is decreasing. Anything above 1 indicates new cases and, therefore, an increase in the number of infections from contagion situations. However, the R0 number alone is not sufficient because it only shows the extent of the epidemic, its spread or decline, but not the specific extent. The R number should actually be monitored in parallel with the number of people currently infected, as explained on the official UK Government website,20Government Office for Science. “Government publishes latest R number.” Gov.uk, 15 May 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-publishes-latest-r-number. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020. where they state the equation: “if R is equal to 1 in 100 000 currently infected people, the situation is quite different than if the R is equal to 1 in 1000 currently infected people.” To complete the picture, it is necessary to bring into play the K number or K value, through which the metric system provides a better understanding of the variation in the R number, particularly in the context of the total number of Covid 19 cases in the UK. K also provides insight into a more nuanced picture of how the infection spreads and allows us to track more than just the routes of transmission. If the R number represents the average number of people a person has infected or will infect, the K number emphasizes that not all people become infected or ill in the same way. If the K number is less than 1, it means that there are many variations in the way the infection spreads. Doctor Adam Kucharski, an expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explains the process by saying: “The general rule is that the lower the K number is, it means that more transmissions come from a fewer number of infected people. When the K number is below 1, there is a potential danger of a major infection.”21Davis, Nicola. “K Number: what is the coronavirus metric that could be crucial as lockdown eases?” The Guardian, 1 June 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/01/k‑number-what-is-coronavirus-metric-crucial-lockdown-eases. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.
Therefore, it is important to follow Warburg’s instructions and distance oneself with some understanding of the rationalizations of science. In summary, in addition to the R number, the K number can determine how, when, and at what rate it will be possible to continue with life and renew daily habits without endangering or discriminating basic social relations.